If you are looking for proof of a world gone mad, then look no further than Benjamin Schmitt’s new poetry collection, Dinner Table Refuge. Written in a clear voice that is often lacking in today’s poetry, Schmitt keenly observes a society on the brink of permanent chaos. Even the four sections of the collection are out of sequence, purposely done by Schmitt to emphasize the dire state of the world. In other words, society is so deflated it cannot even organize the stages of a routine dinner. Although the collection exhibits depressing images and a sense of despondency, do not despair. Remain calm. Take a deep breath and move forward, because hope awaits you.
The first section, titled “A Dessert of Sestinas and Sonnets,” opens with the intense language of “The Ruins,” where Schmitt tells us that:
So many have turned to love for healing
until it dissipates. In this sweet decay
nature leaps over them. It will grow
monumental bird nests from scattered ruins,
breaking down stones with remarkable
lichens. Entropy is now the bringer of light. (13)
Opening this book is therefore a journey in the pursuit of order, peace, love and ultimately, God; however, we cannot find God in a society that functions by random decisions. Random decisions are often poor decisions and poor decisions often stimulate chaos and chaos births decline. “The Ruins” ends thus:
My decay cannot be slow by healing,
I will grow a seedling in the ruins,
in this light the soil is remarkable. (14)
The second section, titled “The Main Course of My Hypocrisy,” Schmitt is searching for a God he fears will not answer him. He prays “for peace and patience” in the poem, “Prayer,” but he is uncertain if prayer actually works or, perhaps, he is showing us that we do not know how to pray, because we pray for trivial things like “wads of darkness” and “dreams and confusion” (24). Certainly, we are a society confused. Our search for God is often futile because we are “sad souls,” as the poem, “Talk the talking” says, “searching for those necessities/that are never on time” (25). These necessities—here I refer back to order, peace, and love—are never on time because we are too impatient to wait for them. This brings us to what Schmitt says is the main course of hypocrisy, what the writer, Jack Remick, says of Schmitt’s observations: we live in an “oil-soaked world gone mad.” Therefore, if we are too impatient to listen to God, then, as the poem, “The squirrel killer,” says, “even in peace we are surrounded by violence” (31).
The third section, titled, “Appetizer: Morsels of my Dysfunction,” reveals an enraged society. Chaos is at its climax. The poem, “Shale,” reveals:
The rage so deep
it is the foundation and the cave
and the trembling in your whole life living (91).
And again in the poem, “Beach:”
the ocean will forever drift in the silence
of your many deaths
a tempest arrives
lightning flashes above the broken boardwalk (88).
And in the section’s last poem, “Water,” Schmitt returns to the imagery of dinner. The last two lines read: “the sadness in your heart/is never seen at dinner” (96).
Yet Schmitt still believes there is hope for society, even with so much chaos around us. I am inclined to agree. In the fourth and final section of the collection, “A Salad of Hope and Lima Beans,” Schmitt opens with the poem, “Surgery.” The last few lines say:
But her body is brave like the universe is brave
and love can only expand
from such violence (101).
Whether you are religious or not, whether you are spiritual or not, certainly you agree that having an ordered and peaceful society is a good thing. Making decisions grounded in anger and acting out those decisions with violence has never solved anything. Society must learn to make thoughtful and deliberate decisions, and the only way for that to happen is if we have love. I believe, as I think Schmitt believes as well, there is no other option.
There is much wisdom in this collection. Living in this world is difficult, but it is not without hope. Schmitt teaches us that the only hope we have is love’s repairing work: mercy, sacrifice, and forgiveness. So I tell you, sit back and carefully read this shrewd collection. Chew it slowly. Digest it. Then grasp hope in your hands. Hold on to love. Hold on to God. I know I do.
Review by Matt Hamilton.